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Courage to believe in self: Women of former Girls Ranch return for reunion

Residents of the Girls Ranch in Williamson County gathered for a reunion after about 3 decades. Ann Collins Ragan (left), Traci Roberts Conner, Gnell Nix Eberle and Jennifer Spicer

An unlikely reunion of several courageous women, who once lived at “Tennessee Girls Ranch,” formerly a refuge located in Williamson County for displaced youngsters, resurrected some bittersweet memories recently.
These women all shared one common experience—the fear associated with leaving a difficult home situation and entering the unknown.
From 1977 to 1988 an organization called Youth Town, a Christian-based nonprofit organization, operated a home for female teens at a time when options for young people were limited.
Some of the reasons that brought the girls to the home were a number of tragic childhood encounters, including abuse, parental neglect, the death of a parent or possibly the reality of having an incredibly dysfunctional family situation.
Under the soaring wood-beamed ceilings of this ranch-style home on Big East Fork Road near Fernvale, former residents (now adults) and volunteers from long ago visited old friends at the spacious lodge.
Ann Birthright reminisces about days past on the Girls Ranch. 
Today, this locale, which has the feel of a quiet lake house or mountain chalet, has been transformed into a private retreat center, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s those arriving here came with sorrow and anxiety, possibly hopelessness and fear.
Rotarians walked the grounds that they helped to build through funding donations and looked at pictures of the youth that they formed bonds with decades ago.
Back then, members of the Rotary Club of Franklin got involved in the work of helping girls come out of difficult situations. 
They took them on shopping trips, to the circus and held a special gathering at Christmas to ensure the girls would have an opportunity to celebrate the season, in the midst of their difficulties. 
“Every experience that I had with the Rotary was always enjoyable,” previous tenant Traci Roberts Conner said. “You felt like a regular kid for a day.” 
Former volunteer and Rotarian, Ann Birthright, said that she enjoyed looking at old pictures of the girls at the ranch, which stirred fond memories. “We reached out to the girls in all shapes, forms and fashions to bring a smile.
They thrived with Wanda and Jerry Cogbill (previous house managers).”
The ranch saw several “house mothers and fathers” come and go, but the Cogbills ran the ranch from the late 1970’s to the early 80’s. 
Gnell Nix Eberle, who lived on the ranch from 1978 to 1983, formed a familial bond with the couple that has lasted for almost 37 years. Her father died when she was 7 and her mom died 10 days before her tenth birthday before she moved to the ranch.
At the reunion, she introduced the Cogbill’s as “mom” and “dad” to the attendees, before sharing her story of living at the ranch. 
“They had such an impact on us. They helped us to deal with the world and to be prepared. And they helped me to become a better mother to my daughter.”
Eberle has also seen her own dreams fulfilled. 
”It was my dream to have my own family, and I did that.”
The girls had varied experiences at the Girls Ranch, and for some the road to adulthood hasn’t been easy. 
They share memories of their stay at the ranch during their most formative years. Those years without a permanent home have impacted their lives and the importance they say they have chosen to place on their own families.
For some, life at the ranch was anything but easy.
Conner said that the girls staying at the ranch relied on each other for support.
Some of the girls said that they never experienced the close-knit family feel that the Cogbills cultivated but experienced more stern and distant caretakers.
The women shared that as young teen girls, the challenge of feeling alone, afraid and misunderstood was tough, but they have managed to move forward with strong lives.  
 “I learned to be my own hero,” Conner said. “No one else is going to look after you like you can. I have a different life now, and I am a different person. Family is the most important thing to me.
“I might not have raised CEO’s, but my children have good hearts and they know family.”
Though time and distance has separated these ladies, once back together they managed to share just how far they had gone beyond the struggles of their youth.
They gave their opinions about past tough family situations.
In those days, counseling services were scarce for young teens they said. However, the girls agreed – “counseling doesn’t help girls like us. There is only so much talking that you can do. The scars don’t go away. They are always there.”
Conner’s sister, Gayle Roberts, whom she was separated from for awhile when young, said that the two have always remained close, despite a broken home life growing up.
“There comes a time when you have to make a choice-—are you going to stay down and continue the cycle or are you going to get up and make something different,” Roberts said. 
Roberts said they chose to get up.
“I don’t even think about it much anymore,” the sisters said.

Posted on: 12/5/2013


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